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When Good Intentions Fail: How the Voluntourism Industry Fails to Make a Sustainable Impact and Uphold Ethical Standards

By: Cristina Chavez MNA ’20

Voluntourists are engaging with children. Photo credit: The Day
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The idea of teaching English in Cambodia, assisting at a medical clinic in Guatemala or building a well in Uganda sounds like a life changing experience if you have two weeks of vacation to spare. However, these short-term international volunteer experiences do little to prepare, educate, or align the volunteer’s skill sets to meet of the needs of the community they serve. I’m guilty as well for having participated in these trips for educational programs. Many of times, I felt helpless and ill-informed when stepping into these spaces as a student. Many of these international engagement experiences do more harm than good to improve the quality of lives for the community and in result, contributes to the growing problem of the voluntourism industry.

As a growing 2 billion dollar industry, voluntourism provides various types of volunteer experiences such as eco-tourism, medical trips, teaching, and many more. Voluntourism is described as Westerners who travel abroad to undertake projects that seek to improve the lives of its community. A combination of emotionally-striking poverty porn and the chance to ‘make a difference’ fuels the desires of altruistic Westerners to volunteer abroad in these communities. This in turn does more to hurt vulnerable communities and plays into the narrative of the egocentric western savior complex. However, the voluntourism industry argues there are many pros to providing these trips such as transformative experiences, exposure to local communities, and fundraising opportunities.

The problem with the dark side of the voluntourism industry is that its feeds from complex systemic issues of poverty and suppression. Many voluntourists lack the understanding of their privilege and the oppressive systems when entering into these spaces. As Teju Cole famously tweeted, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Voluntourism takes on a nuanced-colonialism through the disguise of exotic travel with the hopes of ‘making a difference.’ For example, the popularity of voluntourism trips rose during the aftermath of natural disasters as evident in the case of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. While voluntourists contribute to this evolving problem, many NGO’s also hold responsibility by perpetuating the industry. NGO’s will at times invest more in catering to the experiences of voluntourists than it does to elevate and invest in its community by withholding funds from its community.

While voluntourism is well-intentioned, the industry must challenge itself to delve deeper to uphold a higher standard of ethics and establish concrete initiatives. I argue for the voluntourism industry to focus on several initiatives in order to achieve real impact such as education of social issues, sustainable development, cultural competence, measured impact, and a code of ethics.

Beginning with education, the industry needs to provide thoughtful, honest, and community driven programming around the social justice issues at hand. In addition, sustainable development projects must be community-centered rather than serve the experience of the volunteer. Volunteer skill sets, capacities, and experience should align accordingly with goals the community it is seeking to achieve in order to make sustainable impact. Cultural competence must be upheld when working with vulnerable and poverty-stricken communities. Clear communication, respect for beliefs and practices, and adaptability must be at the core when working with groups whose culture is different. In addition, voluntourists organizations need to measure impact on a short-term and long-term scale, considering all unintended consequences. Most importantly, voluntourism organizations should be upheld to a code of ethics and remain transparent at all times.

Voluntourism can make a positive impact, but it must move away from superficial engagement by upholding a strong code of ethics and calling on the support of professionals. It is also important to critically analyze the intentions of all involved–the voluntourist, voluntourism organization, NGO, and community. This must be an open conversation where all share collective responsibility.

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Watch: Voluntourism: When You Take More Than You Leave Behind | Madara Žgutė | TEDxISM

Piercing the Dark Money Veil

By: Kat Alcaraz-Minnick

Dollars on the desktop. Background. (Free photobank: / © Creative Commons License. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Retrieved from

The 2018 documentary movie, Dark Money, ironically shed much light on the subject of corporate money being funneled into 501(c)(4) (social welfare) and 501(c)(6) (association) nonprofit organizations to elevate candidates who would in turn support corporation agendas. Between 2010 and 2016, over $800 million in dark money was spent in federal elections alone according to Ciara Torres-Spelliscy’s 2017 article, Dark Money as a Political Sovereignty Problem.

Dark money is the process of an individual, corporation, or foreign entity funding a political actions committee (PAC) that is veiled as a nonprofit 501(c)(4) or a 501(c)(6) tax-exempt lobbying organization to support a particular candidate. This PAC will then use the funding without disclosing its donors to run a smear campaign against opposing candidates by bombarding relevant communities with postcards, issue advertisements, robo calls.  Once the candidate gains support and wins the office, this candidate will then turn and support the agenda of the individual, corporation, or foreign entity. This is a dangerous cycle that hands over control of the government to the corporations, wealthy individuals, and possible foreign entities; the people no longer control the government as the forefathers established in the United States Constitution.  Instead, the candidate pushes a directed agenda through the legislative platform to create policies and help pass laws that will benefit the very entity or individual that funded the efforts to place the candidate in office.  This is why we the people are shell-shocked when certain election outcomes from the federal level down to the local level reflect extreme ideals.

Last fall, Peter Overby with NPR wrote an article about the Supreme Court ruling that closed a 40 year-old Federal Election Committee (FEC) loophole.  Overby wrote, “the ruling closes, at least for now, a loophole that has allowed wealthy donors to finance aggressive ads while staying anonymous. Crafted by the Federal Election Commission nearly 40 years ago, the loophole flourished after the 2010 Citizens United ruling.”

There is much movement in Washington D.C. regarding donor transparency with respect to nonprofit groups buying ads or attacking political candidates. In the matter of The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, et al, v. Federal Election Commission and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the ethical question hanging in the air is whether nonprofits involved in election campaigning should disclose the donors funding dark money. I think they should and the Supreme Court agrees with the Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who struck down a FEC regulation on anonymous gifts to “dark money” groups (Overby, August 6, 2018).  I believe that the constitutional rights of the people should be preserved. The government is for the people, by the people; not for wealthy individuals, corporations, and especially not foreign entities. Unfortunately, as with most legal holdings, loopholes will abound. The 2018 ruling has a narrow application stating, “donors giving more than $200 to nonprofits “for the purpose of furthering an “independent expenditure” have to be disclosed to the FEC.”  Now, this means that nonprofits in the election game and dealing with dark money can control the categorization of donor funds. Who is watching? A wink here and a nod there from a corporation donating to a familiar nonprofit political action committee and it is business as usual.

What I find incredibly frustrating is that the nonprofit sector is being used for the market’s pleasure.  The tax-exemption status of the 501(c)(4) allows campaigning and lobbying for social issues. Civic leagues and social welfare organizations are exempt under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. Social welfare organizations generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Organizations that may be performing some type of public or community benefit but whose principal feature is lack of private benefit or profit;
  • Organizations that would qualify for exemption under section 501(c)(3) but for a defect in their organizing documents or if they were not “action organizations”; and
  • Nonprofit organizations that traditionally have been labeled in common parlance as social welfare organizations.

The IRS code states, “The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. However, a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” Dark money activity goes beyond pushing the envelope with respect to the IRS code; it rips the envelope.  The idea that social welfare and trade association nonprofit organizations are used to manipulate and influence local, state, and federal government upsets the nonprofit institute as an economic sector. The purpose of dark money is to conceal donors who fund PACs to directly change the course of the political arena. Transparency, accountability, and disclosure will help to place the control of government back in the hands of the people.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

    Sound bite of NPR’ article regarding Supreme   Court holding for donor disclosure prior to 2018 midterm elections.


Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

3-minute interview with Kimberly Reed, director of Dark Money

Strategic communication is the key to public action

By: Sam Tongo

Cries From Syria Documentary Screening & Discussion Mixer
“Dreams Without Borders” Art Exhibition – Students’ Final Project

The months after the 2016 presidential election were a very difficult for me to comprehend. I watched countless stories about social groups and communities having their rights violated, and I progressively became angry. Angry enough to learn more about the issues, angry enough to talk to my personal circles about it, angry enough to take action.

That’s when I decided to team up with friends who felt the same way, and created a grassroots advocacy group called LEADAC, standing for LEadership, ADvocacy and ACtivism. The past two years since then have been amazing in terms of developing awareness. We’ve had the honor of raising $6,000 for the aid of Syrian refugees, hosting a “Drink & Discuss” event for community members to have a safe space to discuss the Charlottesville protest, and creating a human rights class curriculum for our alma mater, amongst many more initiatives.

We are now, however, finding it difficult to push beyond just spreading awareness of certain issues via social media and events. We want to create real change at a larger scale. We’re wondering, “Why does it seem so difficult to think of actionable ideas that will work?” My first thought is because we are just a small, young grassroots advocacy group that still has a lot to learn. Yes – that’s true, but I recently read an Stanford Social Innovation Review article titled “Stop Raising Awareness Already” which argues that nonprofits should become more strategic and clear with its messages. I now have a better idea on how to move forward.

The article suggests that the gap between educating and encouraging people to act is wide due to a lack of structure when communicating call-to-action messages to the public. The main arguments are that: 1) awareness does not guarantee people changing the way they feel, think or act on an issue, and 2) an awareness campaign can lead to four risks such as leading to no action, reaching the wrong audience, creating harm, or generating backlash. This communication model is called the “information deficit model,” which is the concept that if you throw more facts at people, they’ll eventually come around on an issue. Although the case study was geared towards the scientific community, this model also applies to the nonprofit sector. An article titled “Facts versus feelings isn’t the way to think about communicating science” agrees with the earlier mentioned Stanford Social Innovation Review article on how awareness campaigns which use the “information deficit model” across multiple fields are most likely “incomplete” and “over-simplistic” in achieving its goals for public action. The common and natural instinct to make sure that many people are aware of the cause you care about is noble, but what next?

The article lists four essential elements to creating a successful public interest communications campaign:

  1. Target your audience as narrowly as possible
  2. Create compelling messages with clear calls to action
  3. Develop a theory of change (methodology or road map for how you will achieve change that includes objectives, tactics, and evaluation)
  4. Use the right messenger

There have been many organizations that attempted to evoke public action through awareness campaigns. However, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” and the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse,” awareness campaigns stood out to me as specific examples of success and failure, respectively.


CDC’s “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse”
First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move”


The CDC’s objective with this campaign was to encourage more people to create preparedness kits in case of an emergency. Although the campaign became viral and included a clear call-to-action, Dr. Julia Fraustino’s case study on the initiative concluded that its humor distracted people away from the call-to-action due to them taking the issue less seriously. Despite its success in gaining popularity, the campaign failed in terms of getting more people to act on disaster-preparedness. I personally remember when this campaign launched in 2011, and I thought it was very clever of them to ride the “zombie trend” for more public awareness; however, I simply brushed it off and continued with my life instead of acting on the CDC’s message. I think the essential element the CDC failed to integrate in its campaign was “creating compelling messages with clear calls to action” due to the organization not prompting the public to take the issue more seriously.

The “Let’s Move” campaign, which launched in 2012, was an example of an awareness campaign that actually led to action and results. Obama’s strategy of researching the underlying causes of child obesity and referring to social science when communicating health issues enabled her to effectively encourage the public to live a healthier lifestyle in multiple ways. In terms of the essential elements to creating a successful public interest communications campaign:

  1. Target your audience as narrowly as possible (schools)
  2. Create compelling messages with clear calls to action (“drink more water” instead of “stop drinking soda”)
  3. Develop a theory of change (replace meal plans with healthy meals at schools)
  4. Use the right messenger (First Lady leading the initiative)

This article theorized that the reason her campaign succeeded was because “a clear and compelling call to action [was] delivered in an appealing way to a carefully considered target audience.” Strategic communication at this scale also helped prevent a waste of resources alongside providing solutions to social problems.

During a Global Studies lecture, a wise professor told us that “this moment in time will be written in history books and people will ask you about it – what do you want to say you’ve done?” Nonprofit organizations and grassroots advocacy groups like mine have the opportunity to make a lasting impact on many different causes, but won’t mean anything if nothing happens. We can’t do this alone, and the public is just waiting for someone to push them to act. Strategic communication is the key to public action, and should be adopted by all nonprofit organizations so they can achieve their missions.

Suspicious Swag: An Examination of the Ethical Sourcing of Nonprofit Merchandise

By: Kelly Cousins


Presently Family Support Services is preparing for our annual Fundraiser Gala. As with every year, this involves soliciting new ideas from, staff, Board of Directors, etc. This year, a recurring suggestion is the idea of swag bags; goodies that guests can take away with them to keep Family Support Services in mind long after they have left the event. I have worked at many nonprofits that sell or give away merchandise to fundraise for and promote their mission, and so this idea at first seemed like a perfect addition to the Family Support Services event. However, upon further reflection, it has become clear that nonprofit swag is an arena fraught with ethical dilemmas.

As recently as January of 2019, the world saw the power of swag to undermine a nonprofit’s mission in a matter of days. The article “Charitable Swag and Mission Violations: The Spice Girls, Comic Relief, and a Factory in Bangladesh” highlighted the scandal when U.K. based charity Comic Relief, which strives to “create a just world, free from poverty”, was caught in the crosshairs when T-shirts being sold at a Spice Girls Benefit Concert to fundraise for Comic Relief and gender equality were found to be produced in a Bangladesh factory in which women were being overworked, underpaid, and often abused. This scandal rocked the Spice Girls, Comic Relief, and the nonprofit sector in general by making it clear how easy it is for nonprofits to fall into unethical traps.

Swag is generally considered to be a great promotional and fundraising tool. Articles like Notes on the Importance of “Swag” from Obama and Romney, and Keep Donors Coming Back with Memorable Swag Bags imply that having some type of branded swag is not only a good way to promote your agency, but also a great way to thank volunteers and donors. Most nonprofits exist to address some type of inequality. Whether that is inequality related to race, gender, economic status, education, sexuality, food, etc., they are all united in their desire to do good in the world. Paying $5.00 for a tote bag that you can then sell for $15.00 sounds like an ideal fundraiser, but it is important to look deeper at the issue. If the workers making those tote bags are making only $1.00 a day to make these totes, and are unable to provide for themselves and their families, does that violate your organizational mission? Is it worth the savings?


Nonprofits have a responsibility to be doing the research to ensure that they are using only ethically sourced material in their swag. Most nonprofits cannot hire a watchdog agency or a private detective to track down detailed information on all of the organizations they buy from, so much of this research falls into the lap of already overworked nonprofit staff. This can seem a daunting task, but it is undeniably necessary, and there are some tools that already exist to help in this search. First, and most common, is looking for labels like Fair Trade Certified, or Global Organic Textile Standards. These labels demonstrate that the product, whether it is bananas or tote bags, complies with the ethical standards of these certifying entities. Another slightly more difficult step is to research the companies that you intend to buy from. Specifically, go in search of these companies’ internal “Code of Conduct” or “Code of Ethics”. These codes are sometimes easy to find, and other times buried deep in the website, but most companies have them publicly available. It is worth the time to poke around, and be sure when you find the code to read the fine print. This is where you can find information about the companies’ ethical values. A final valuable step is to gauge the company’s transparency. Are they clear about where they source material, or is this information nearly impossible to find? This is a good indicator of whether this organization has anything to hide that you might want to be aware of.

It is no longer surprising in this day in age to hear that businesses are sourcing their T-shirts, their coffee, their pens from sweat shops for one very simple reason; it is cheaper. As nonprofits, keeping costs down is a hallmark of our business practice, however this is somewhere where we need to draw the line, lest we find ourselves directly contributing to unethical companies that contradict our mission statements. Nonprofits like Labour Behind the Label are devoted to making this struggle more visible, and ethical purchasing more attainable, but we all must play our part.  Moving forward, as Family Support Services examines our options when it comes to organizational swag, we will be sure to do thorough research into how best to provide a full donor experience, while still practicing what we preach in terms of equality, sustainability, and ethical labor.

Cladwell. (January 25, 2016) “4 Ways to Know if a Company is Ethical and Sustainable.” Retrieved from:

McCambridge, Ruth. (January 24, 2019). “Charitable Swag and Mission Violations: The Spice Girls, Comic Relief, and a Factory in Bangladesh.” Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from:

Keefe-Feldman, Michael. (June 22, 2012). Notes on the Importance of “Swag” from Obama and Romney. Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from:

Momin, Sam. (June 23, 2017). Keep Donors Coming Back with Memorable Swag Bags. Nonprofit PRO. Retrieved from:

Using Neutrality to Protect Humanity

By Hayley Walker and Valdeir Faria Filho

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are functioning in our global society, some better than others. Some are well-known (CARE, Amnesty International, Red Cross) and use effective marketing techniques, lobbying efforts, and provide programs internationally. Others are small, local organizations that work to make life better for specific groups of people. Regardless, these diverse and varying NGOs have multiple commonalities, though they may not be fully visible on the surface. All, however, embark on missions to protect humanity.

The World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (WANGO) is an international organization that aims to unite NGOs and promote peace and wellbeing across the globe. WANGO offers resources and support to create connections among organizations striving to create a more just, sustainable world for all. As a proponent of networks and collaborations, WANGO sheds light on the synergy that results from global organizations working towards a common goal. With widespread government support, exceptional visionaries, and dedicated donors, WANGO has worked for the past 17 years to encourage NGOs to connect across borders and without boundaries, and to hold steadfast to the following guiding principles (WANGO Code of Ethics):

  • Responsibility, service, and public mindedness
  • Cooperation beyond boundaries
  • Human rights and dignity
  • Religious freedom
  • Transparency and accountability
  • Truthfulness and legality

NGOs, in the broadest sense, cannot be for profit organizations, must be independent of government, must not interfere in domestic state affairs, and must not advocate violence (Kaloudis, 2017). However, there comes a time when disaster relief and humanitarian organizations must interfere—or rather, intervene—in domestic affairs in an effort to protect humanity. Non-governmental organizations are frequently caught in the cross-fire of waring territories, failed states, and desperate civilians, with one goal in mind: to provide relief for those in need.

During times of crisis, NGOs rely deeply on their neutrality to aid them in reaching the most people possible. In accordance with WANGO’s principle of working towards cooperation beyond boundaries, neutrality refers to refraining from taking sides on issues regarding political, cultural, religious affiliation, or other sensitive issues that may result in conflict. That does not mean that NGOs disappear or go into hiding during such conflicts, but rather work harder to serve all affected—regardless of their stance on the issues. Impactful NGOs uphold the policy of not “taking sides,” and this is crucial to the safety of workers, volunteers, donors, and civilians. However, in recent years NGOs have faced difficulty in mitigating suffering as impartial entities, in part due to assumed association with national governments or international organizations (Brechenmacher, 2015).  Aid and relief of organizations urge conflicting parties to respect their neutral stance as they provide desperately needed services to civilians, but reality does not always allow provide for this ideal situation. State militaries may claim alliances with NGOs, and rebel forces may see this alliance as a threat to their progress. NGOs, however, frequently default to the emphasizing the value of impartiality in conflict zones and assert their neutral stance to relieve human suffering—a practice that is often debated. In order to reach civilians who may be trapped or displaced deep within war zones and conflict arenas, NGOs must carefully negotiate with opposing parties. They must ensure they remain under enough security to serve, but enough neutrality to relieve the suffering civilians from all sides.